CFO World

What Open Universities Australia did to enact a complete business and technology transformation

Online education marketplace provider details the digital transformation overhaul it embarked on in order to improve student and provider engagement and find business growth


Open Universities Australia (OUA) has chalked up its first student enrolment growth in 15 quarters and slashed the time it takes to on-board learning providers following a business transformation and overhaul of its technology ecosystem.

OUA head of design, build, test and implementation, Srini Nori, told CMO the decision to throw out the old and move into the new was triggered by a board-led change to strategy at the online learning marketplace.

Having spent several years disrupting learning through digital capability, the organisation found itself stretch from tertiary courses into vocational education, education administrative services and corporate training. This has also resulted in fragmented and manual processes across systems, including its Salesforce CRM, service and marketing cloud instances.

The decision was made in 2016 to focus solely on higher education and exit other businesses. OUA today has 13 university partners and serves about 350,000 students.

“This meant a significant change to the entire ecosystem, organisation and the technology landscape,” Nori said in an interview during the recent IBM Think event in Sydney.

“The tech was built was built for the previous strategy, which was five different businesses… and the landscape was very different. We realised we had to simplify the landscape in order to focus on higher education.”

The ambition was to develop a unified platform and place where students could find degrees and courses quickly and easily, while also giving providers the ability to better pinpoint and engage such students seeking further education. Another pain point OUA hoped to alleviate was the process of on-boarding universities.

“We needed a platform where both could come together; where we could engage and remove friction between students finding degrees faster and commencing their learning programs, and universities bringing their learning products to students to quickly,” Nori said.  “Simplification was our key strategy.”

Having made the decision to transform its entire technology stack, OUA set a hard deadline of the end of 2017 to go live in order to be able to address enrolments in Q1, 2017, its busiest time of year. On average, 60 per cent of business is done during this quarter.

To help, the organisation recruited six external partners, including IBM Bluewolf, Avanade and base2 services. Each was chosen for its specialist expertise in software as well as education domain knowledge, Nori said.

“We knew we needed a few things from a technology perspective,” he continued. “For example, Salesforce was the right platform, so we needed a partner to bring out the best of that technology, but who also understood education and could bring in expertise from a broader industry perspective. That was the reason why IBM Bluewolf was chosen.

“Avanade was another partner coming from a Microsoft platform perspective, and helped us do the entire user experience and business transformation from a design perspective.”

The technology

OUA rolled out Salesforce CRM to provide its 360-degree view of students. It’s also using Salesforce Service, Marketing and Community cloud offerings in order to create an end-to-end experience for students, faculty and partner universities. For example, Sales Cloud and Service Cloud support the internal contact centre, while a custom Force.com solution allows the team to more quickly on-board new universities into the marketplace.

Communication between student and university partners, meanwhile, is automated via Salesforce Marketing Cloud, and an internal community has been built off the back of Community Cloud allowing OUA to collaborate with providers around managing, reviewing and approving student applications.

This was vital given one of the unique propositions of OUA is the ability to individually enrol in a course and complete pre-requisite study before a full degree, Nori said. The challenge was facilitating the exchange between prospect and provider on these pre-requisites before a student could be accepted to a degree.

To help, OUA built Lightning Communities in Salesforce for each university. When a student enrols with OUA, those providers have their own portal and community where they can see the student record and all info the student has provided, and can quickly go through that record item, review, see if there’s more information required, and reach out, Nori said.

In addition, Sitecore was brought in to run the OUA website front-end and underlying CMS, and the organisation is using parts of AWS as well, plus Oracle Campus for student management system.

All technology went live at the same time. “We started in early 2017 and quickly realised you can’t deliver to student experience expectations by just building the website and not building the back-end. It has to go all together,” Nori said.

Deciding to entirely rebuild the whole ecosystem was one of the bravest decisions OUA had to make, Nori agreed.  

“It was one of the most enduring activities we as a team have done. We went live in the end of the week of December 2017 with an entirely new landscape – from back-end systems to the website,” he said.  

Alongside provider benefits, these substantial changes mean students now have improved course searchability based on each degree and subject, as well as streamlined enrolment.

Additionally, Salesforce Marketing Cloud has allowed OUA to personalise emails and commence online re-targeting campaigns for existing and prospective students. It’s also gained a real-time view into students studying with the education provider, streamlined the application process, and provided better visibility for OUA’s internal staff, university partners and students. 

Salesforce Lightning’s Activity Timeline component also enables OUA to see what students are doing and pre-empt enquiries by looking at the previous four to five interactions, and providing the information required.    

Nori and his team now have more personalisation in their sights. This includes building a ‘student hub’, where individuals can adjust information to suit their needs.

Up next: The unexpected data hurdles, success metrics, plus how to cope with cultural change

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Data challenges

A significant challenge along the way, and one Nori admitted his team underestimated, was data migration technically, as well as from a business perspective.

“From 1990 to now, there were lots of regulatory and compliance changes around the data we take from students to help enrol in courses,” he said. “When we migrated with the new student experience and processes, some of that data wasn’t available to fit into the new processes and systems. At that time, that rule wasn’t there and data isn’t there.

“That’s an example of a challenge around rules changing over the years, because the data changes with it. We didn’t anticipate that.”

Data migration and management remains a constant, ongoing focus as a result, Nori said.

Success measures

Overall, OUA increased conversion rates by almost 50 per cent within first seven months of going live. After 15 quarters of decline in overall student numbers, it’s also seen its first quarterly leap.

A second important metric for Nori is how quickly the team is able to onboard a new university – from four months to two weeks.

“We’ve done at least 300 releases in the last three months, which is substantially different to the old landscape, where it used to take weeks and sometimes months to make such changes,” he said.

The transformation was the launching pad, and lots of improvements are planned this year to improve student performance both individually, but also across the spectrum, Nori said.

“From a business perspective, one thing we want to do is bring in more universities to the platform and offer greater choice to students. We also want to bring more students to universities as well as help them realise their dreams of higher education,” he said. “We currently have 13 universities offering courses via OUA, and within those we’re looking to understand their entire offering and how to facilitate that online as well.”  

The good news is OUA has a strong, simplified ecosystem that can scale to suit business needs, Nori said. “It’s built to scale but it has to scale based on where the business opportunity is,” he said.  

Another priority is looking at improving enrolment rules and processes to make them even easier, while further changes are the result of going live.

“There were lots of technical and business improvements we learned along the way. For example, improving the integrations between systems – until it went live, we couldn’t see that,” Nori said.

Culture shift

It’s vital with any such substantial transformation to bring both technology and business teams together from the outset, Nori said.

“We were trying to understand what those core business processes are and how we constantly simplify them, critically look at them. This required transformation of the entire organisation,” he said.  

“I see this as a changing paradigm across organisations – technology and business transformation has to be one and the same thing. It’s about one team trying to solve a problem. As an organisation, as a team and for me personally, we all learned working together as part of this transformation project was key to accomplishing what we wanted.”

Nori suggested next-generation platforms such as Salesforce and IBM are forcing this cultural change.

“Being cloud-based, these force business and tech to work very closely and the gap is disappearing,” he claimed. “To lead this platform, you have to understand the business. And to operate the platform, the business person has to understand the technology. Both have to sit together and do it, otherwise it’s never going to happen.”  

Strong board direction and buy-in also ensured the OUA business was focused and aligned on platform strategy and found common purpose.

“Teams worked together and delivered to this, and partners played a significant role in expertise, challenging us and assisting us,” Nori added.  

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